The Ins and Outs of Vancouver Whitecaps 2024 offseason moves

The Ins and Outs of Vancouver Whitecaps 2024 offseason moves

Vancouver Whitecaps are mere days away from finally starting their 2024 MLS Season. And it’ll be a bit of a new-look Whitecaps that take to the pitch against Charlotte FC at BC Place on Saturday after making a few changes to their roster in the off-season. Some attacking, some defensive, and even a goalkeeping reinforcement have been added, while the ‘Caps have let some veteran, young, and well-known names leave the club. But how does their transfer activity fare overall? Let’s dive into their transfers one-by-one and find out!


Damir Kreilach (AM/ST)

Quick Stats:
– A 34 year old, 6’2” Croatian attacker
– 56 goals & 19 assists in 168 appearances for Real Salt Lake (2018-2023)
– 4 goals & 1 assist in 28 MLS appearances in 2023
– MLS All-Star in 2021 after career high of 16 goals & 8 assists for RSL
– Former Union Berlin (2013-2018) and Rijeka player (2008-2013)

Damir Kreilach comes into the team as some added threat in the attack. One of the biggest issues that the Whitecaps had in 2023 was they had no real danger off the bench when times got tough. Simon Becher was a useful super sub for a little while, netting himself a purple patch that was good enough to get him a move abroad, but his impact wasn’t enough to be consistent across the whole season.

Enter the Kreilach. While definitely a veteran, Kreilach has been a proven threat in the MLS since he entered the league. An MLS All-Star in 2021, he has demonstrated his physical prowess and technical ability to not only be a danger in the box, but also a useful player in the build up. Questions will be asked about whether he can still pull those performances after suffering from a serious lower-back surgery in mid-2022, ending his 2022 season and hampering his 2023 season.

However, in chatting with AFTN, it seems that Damir feels back to his best after that surgery. His first leg performance vs Tigres certainly showed flashes to back him up on that, but it will remain to be seen if he can keep that up on at least a semi-consistent basis. The biggest positive overall from his signing is that he adds a different profile and dimension to the Whitecaps’ attack, thus allowing Vanni some tactical fluidity and selection options ahead of 2024.

Fafa Picault looks to the skies as Brian White fails to bury his pass across goal
(Photo Credit:

Fabrice “Fafà” Picault (FW)

Quick Stats:
– A 32-year old, 5’7” U.S.-born Haitian attacker
– 52 goals & 20 assists in 221 MLS appearances
– Played for Philadelphia Union (2017-2019), FC Dallas (2020), Houston Dynamo (2020-2022), and Nashville (2023)
– Had career year in 2021 with 11 goals & 4 assists for Houston
– Also played for Tampa Bay Rowdies (2012), Fort Lauderdale Strikers (2014), Sparta Prague (2015), and St. Pauli (2015-2017)

Fafà Picault comes into the team in much the same way as Kreilach did: to add to the attack with a different profile. A pacy and dynamic winger by trade, he can add a sense of directness that was sometimes lacking from attacking players last year. His adeptness for dribbling also means he can beat his man and create chances in deadlock situations; something the Whitecaps had occasional trouble in when trying to break down stubborn defences.

In our chat with Picault, he seemed keen to be able to work under “Mr. Vanni”; a curious demeanor at the time considering he often plays as a winger, and Vanni is vehemently against playing traditional wingers. But Sartini clearly saw him being capable of being an inside forward rather than a winger, thanks to his abilities in being a direct goal-scoring threat. We saw glimpses of this in his two cameos vs Tigres, bursting down onto goal in possession, cutting inside to find shot opportunities, and more. He added some dynamism to a team whose legs were (understandably) starting to fail them.

If Picault can continue to add that in his appearances both off-the-bench and in the starting XI, it will give the Whitecaps some needed energy and direct threat throughout the 2024 season. And players that can give you that and deliver some goals and assists as well can be the difference between finishing 6th and finishing inside the Top 3 of the Western Conference.

Bjørn Inge Utvik (CB)

Quick Stats:
– A 27-year-old, 6’0” Norwegian centre-back
– Scored 7 goals and registered 2 assists in 130 matches for Sarpsborg 08
– Led his team in Blocks, Clearances, Accurate Passes and Accurate Long Balls (all per 90) in 2023, while scoring a career-high of 4 goals and 1 assist
– Also played for Sogndal (2013-2017) and FK Haugesund (2012).

Bjørn Inge Utvik comes in at the much-needed position of center-back. Last year we saw the Whitecaps rely heavily on Tristan Blackmon and Ranko Veselinović as their main center-back options at the start of the season, with Mathías Laborda and Javain Brown as their deputies. But with the formation changing from a back four to a back three halfway through the season, Laborda found himself in the starting three with only Brown as a called-upon replacement, although he was found to be better at wingback. That meant that the Whitecaps needed more CB depth, especially after letting Karifa Yao go.

In a true captain’s role, Utvik was one of Sarpsborg 08’s best players last season, both in defensive and passing displays. He was particularly talented in long-balls up the pitch, completing more long passes per 90 (5.7) than anyone else, despite having a success percentage of 46.5%. This likely means he was quite frequently prone to execute these long balls in his team, to an almost quarterback capacity. He also had the most blocks (23) and the most clearances (124) on his team, but was relatively low on the tackles, pointing to him being more prone to dropping back and sweeping rather than stepping up and stopping attacks.

The fact that he scored four goals off corners despite just being 6ft in a league known to have giants, shows how talented he is in the air. He won 60.4% of his aerial duels, putting him as one of the top players in the Eliteserien in that statistic last year. Overall, he ticks a lot of the boxes that are needed for how Vanni plays: good in possession, good in the air and good defensively in the box. The only concern might be how he transitions to playing in a back three after playing almost exclusively in a back four with Sarpsborg 08 last season.

Belal Halbouni (CB)

Quick Stats:
– A 24-year-old, 6’2” Canadian-born Syrian centre-back
– A highly rated defender from League1 Ontario, made his move to Germany to play for Werder Bremen II in the Regionalliga Nord in 2020
– Scored 3 goals and 2 assists in 28 appearances for Werder Bremen II before moving to 1. FC Magdeburg in 2022
– Made one appearance for Syria in 2022 but tore his ACL in that match, limiting his play time for his club side to only eight appearances after the injury
– Also played for FC London (2017-2019) and the Western Mustangs (2018)

Belal Halbouni comes in for some nice domestic defensive cover, similar to Karifa Yao last year. Belal will hopefully have more opportunities to shine than Yao, especially after his rise to fame earlier this decade. He was a striker that turned to center-back in his college days, and after performing well in League1 Ontario, was scouted and signed for Werder Bremen’s reserve side in Germany.

He was tipped to be a surprise inclusion for the CanMNT ahead of the 2022 World Cup for his impressive performances for the German side. But despite being called up to a January training camp for Canada in 2021, Halbouni opted to represent his father’s native land in Syria in 2022. That was when disaster struck and he tore his ACL in his lone appearance against Qatar in a friendly, hampering his playing time and development for his new side 1. FC Magdeburg for the next two years. Now with the Whitecaps, Halbouni has a chance to kick-start his career once again and prove why he was a popular pick for many Canadian fans.

At 6’2”, he is another player that seems good in the air, and his physicality makes him a hard player to get by. After chatting with AFTN prior to the Tigres match in Langford, Halbouni looked and felt extremely fit. Whether or not we can see him at the level he was at when he was captaining Werder Bremen II remains to be seen, but hopefully it can be an environment where Halbouni can get back on his feet and fight for some playing time.

Joe Bendik (GK)

Quick Stats:
– A 34-year-old, 6’3” veteran American goalkeeper
– 189 MLS appearances since 2012
– Was part of the Philadelphia Union side that won the Supporters’ Shield in 2020
– Also played for Columbus Crew (2019), Orlando City (2016-2018), Toronto FC (2013-2015), Portland Timbers (2012) and Sogndal (2010-2012).

Joe Bendik was a bit of a surprise and an unpopular pick-up for the Whitecaps. No-one can deny that he has plenty of MLS experience, being in the league since 2012. In his prime, he was a decent MLS caliber goalie, especially in his time with Toronto and Orlando City. However, since 2019, he has only made 20 MLS appearances and kept 0 clean sheets. Not exactly “statement-signing” statistics to make a fanbase excited.

The real question is where Bendik falls in the ‘keepers pecking order, with the Whitecaps having an undisputed #1 in Yohei Takaoka, and a suitable deputy in Isaac Boehmer. Many fans wanted Boehmer to perhaps have a greater role, especially since Sartini admitted that he should have rotated his squad more, including the goalkeeper position, at the end of 2023. However, with Bendik coming into the squad, that has put a question mark on whether Sartini sees Boehmer as part of his plans, garnering minutes with WFC2 until called upon, or whether he may perhaps benefit from a loan outside the team to get some more competitive minutes.

Regardless, the signing is likely no more than some added experience in the team and an emergency option if something happens to Yohei and Boehmer.


Thomas Hasal (GK), Option Declined:

Hasal was Sartini’s number 1 goalie for 2022, but was deemed not good enough to be the top keeper. He never really competed with Takaoka in 2023 and played just one match against St. Louis City, where he conceded three goals. He got put on the season-ending injury list thanks to a consistent patellar tendonitis injury in mid August. Overall, not surprising that he was let go since it looked like Boehmer was a better Number 2 to Yohei throughout the season, but it is nice that the Whitecaps are still helping him get back to fitness after his injury.

Junior Hoilett (FW/MF), Contract Not Renewed:

Hoilett came in as another big name during that insane summer transfer window that also included Richie Laryea and Sam Adekugbe, but he never really hit the ground running. He made only nine appearances, starting only twice for the Whitecaps last season. He has been a crucial player for the CanMNT over the years, and has shone in England in the last decade, but it felt more like this stint was to maintain his fitness and add some experience in that final push for the playoffs. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable to be able to see three CanMNT stars feature for the team, even if it was still not enough to get them past the first round of the playoffs. Hopefully he does well over in Scotland for Aberdeen under Neil Warnock once more.

Kamron Habibullah (MF), Option Declined

Another WFC2 player that never really lived up to his potential. An academy player that was tipped to be a potential star, Habibullah only made three appearances for the Whitecaps since 2021, featuring only for WFC2 last season. He did pretty well for WFC2 in 2023, scoring 4 goals and notching 3 assists in 18 games but it seems that wasn’t enough to trigger his option. Now, Habibullah will have to look elsewhere to continue his career.

Matteo Campagna (CB), Option Declined

In the same vein as Habibullah, Campagna never really broke through for the Whitecaps in his three-year spell at the club. After signing a homegrown contract in 2021 from the Academy, he made his lone senior appearance in the Concacaf Champions Cup (then League) against Real España as a substitute in the second leg. He did feature 29 times for WFC2 and even scored one goal, but he too will need to look elsewhere for a new club after his option was also declined.

Karifa Yao (DF), Option Declined

The former CF Montreal defender came to this team with some warm reception, especially from the avid CPL fans. Yao was a great defender for Cavalry FC in his two seasons there, but his ability never really rose above to the level that Sartini required out of him at MLS standards. One might feel like he never really got a chance beyond his few appearances in the Leagues Cup and Canadian Championship, but at least the Montreal native has already found his new home in the USL Championship with Rhode Island FC.

Russell Teibert (MF), Option Declined

This one was to be expected. Teibert has been in the Whitecaps system for 16 years, preceding their MLS days, and has been the stalwart player that has divided most fans for the last few years. His commitment to the club can never be questioned, after involving himself with many community projects in Vancouver off the pitch, but it was time for Rusty to move on. There are rumours that he will stay at the Whitecaps under a different role, but it has not been revealed what that role may be yet or whether he wants to accept it. Could a playing return somewhere be on the cards?

Caio Alexandre (MF), Sold to Fortaleza EC

If you forgot that Caio Alexandre was technically still employed at the Whitecaps, don’t feel bad. The 24-year-old Brazilian last played for the Whitecaps in 2022, before being loaned to Fortaleza EC in August of that season. His loan was extended with an obligation to buy if certain performance clauses were met through 2023, with Whitecaps CEO Axel Schuster confirming that the clauses were met before his official sale earlier this year. He was subsequently sold to Bahia in Brazil, meaning that the Whitecaps also recouped a sell-on fee. We never really got to see much of Caio after his initial good start thanks to some lengthy injuries, so we never really got to know “what-it-could-have-been”. So Ciao Caio, we hardly knew ye.

Simon Becher (FW), Sold to AC Horsens

Arguably the biggest departure of the window, Simon Becher leaves the Whitecaps for European football in Denmark. Becher had a lovely purple patch at the start of last season where his “Goal-per-90” stats were off the charts, but he was unable to be consistent with his efforts. Still, it’s hard to see a young MLS Next Pro product leave the Whitecaps after seemingly just breaking through, but it appears that the Whitecaps got a decent fee in it for around $400K USD for him. Add the confirmed sell-on percentage and it’s a pretty good deal all around.


Second Time Lucky with DP Striker?

While the Whitecaps have done well to bring in some experience and variance in their acquisitions, there are still some gaps to be filled. Kreilach and Picault are solid additions to the attack, but there are still questions about whether the Whitecaps will utilize their last DP spot to bring in another big striker, especially after their last acquisition of Sergio Córdova.

Córdova’s cup of coffee stay with the Caps was marred with injuries, lack of fitness, and huge expectations. Perhaps this is the reason why the Whitecaps have not decided to get a DP striker in this window, and may wait to acquire their DP (regardless of position) in the summer. Nevertheless, it will be asking a lot for White and Gauld to be able to replicate their stunning 2023 numbers in 2024, so let’s hope Kreilach and Picault can make up some of those numbers until some bigger guns arrive – if they arrive.

Who Replaces Richie at Right Wingback?

Many fans were hopeful that Richie Laryea would be able to extend his stay with the Whitecaps permanently after his loan expired. However, with Nottingham Forest playing some hardball and his heart still out east, Laryea found himself back at Toronto FC instead for the 2024 MLS Season. That means that the Whitecaps have no starting RWB in their 3-4-3 formation.

Ryan Raposo might have been the favorite, but after our chat with Vanni, we learned that he wants to start Ryan on the left so he can cut inside. Javain Brown could slot in, but his attacking abilities aren’t really up to par compared to who was there previously. Vanni’s Swiss army knife in Sebastian Berhalter could do a job there, but he seems better suited overall to be Andres Cubas’ deputy at the defensive midfield position.

Wingbacks are a huge part of the success in Vanni’s tactical philosophy, as they are the width in the team. His borderline detestation for wingers allows his wingbacks to push freely up and down the wing, meaning that they need a player that is as good offensively as he is defensively. It is not an easy profile to identify and acquire, perhaps why they have yet to sign one. But with the opening match now three days away, it is the position that has fans sweating the most about the team.

U22 Initiative?

At the end of last season, the Whitecaps had all three U22 Initiative slots filled. The only issue was that two out of three of them were on loan; Deiber Caicedo at Junior back in Colombia and Caio Alexandre in Brazil. But with the sale of Alexandre, the Whitecaps now have the option to take up that third U22 Initiative spot to get some young quality in. Essentially a pseudo-DP spot in and of itself, there are a lot of possibilities for the Whitecaps in where to utilize their last spot.

Perhaps they could use the spot for the lacking forward or wingback position, but there is always a risk getting a young and unfamiliar player to have to step up to fill such a big gap, especially in such a complex system. Perhaps it might be better to get a player to come in as an understudy in the attack or defense, and grow into a starter after a season under Vanni’s tutelage. Regardless, the U22 slot – like the DP situation – will probably be something that the Whitecaps will wait until the summer for, since there are more options for exciting young players when the European season window ends.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, it’s been a decent off-season for the Whitecaps. It might not live up to that incredible midseason window that saw three Canadian Men’s National Team members come in, but it was always going to be hard to follow that. Kreilach and Picault might be some underrated additions after their positive flashes vs Tigres, while Utvik and Halbouni might surprise a few people over the course of the season.

It does feel like the club haven’t necessarily taken that big step up to match the ambition that fans had after their stellar displays in 2023. Perhaps it might be asking too much of the Whitecaps when most of the big deals that happen in the MLS occur in the summer transfer window. Or perhaps we might be taking it too easy on them. Either way, you can’t say the Whitecaps have had a bad off-season for recruitments so far. There are just some gaps in quality and in certain positions ahead of what is expected to be a massive season for the Whitecaps.

Hopefully the Whitecaps, like the signings that they’ve made, can live up to these expectations, lest this window be scrutinized under an even greater critical lens.

Authored by: Felipe Vallejo

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